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Mental Illness | Inclusive Coaching | ConnectedCoaches

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Mental Illness

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You have an athlete who loses their temper and swears at others in training – what do you do? The same athlete makes phone calls threatening physical violence to one of their fellow squad members – what do you do?

Would your answers change if you knew the athlete was mentally ill?

This is a predicament I was presented with earlier this year and I thought I’d share the experience.

Firstly I had to consider what my role is as a coach. As coaches we:

  • have to respect the basic human rights of ALL athletes – the mentally ill athlete and also those threatened by him.
  • must ensure the safety of our athletes.
  • must accept final responsibility for the conduct of our athletes, while also encouraging their acceptance of responsibility for their own conduct.
  • must recognise that ALL athletes (the mentally ill athlete and also those threatened by him) have a right to pursue their athletic potential.

The dilemma was how to keep this athlete in the sport and yet protect the other squad members?

If you know the athlete has a mental illness, there are a number of support organisations you can talk to or e-mail for advice. . If you only suspect the athlete has a mental illness, it is still worth getting in touch. The bodies to contact will naturally be different in England to the ones in Australia, where I live, but there is a definitive list of UK mental health support organisations listed here.

In my case, the athlete in question has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, with some added complications that haven’t been divulged to me. For simplicity, I’ll call him ‘Fred’ and the athlete he threatened ‘Mary’ (not their real names).

Based on my research, I developed the following plan:

  • If Fred misbehaves in future he will be subject to the same disciplinary actions as any other athlete (and clearly and empathically explain that aggressive behaviour is not acceptable).
  • Mary and other squad members have been informed that they are to contact the Police immediately if they are threatened by Fred.
  • If I suspect Fred is having an ‘episode’ of mental illness, or is heading that way, I will tell him to see his Doctor. I may escalate this by calling his mother.
  • I contacted the club president and a selected club member and told them what had happened and what I was doing about it. The selected club member is an older man that had strong connections with the athlete.
  • I copied the research on bipolar disorder for the club’s library.
  • I explained the plan to Fred. In any future discussions I will ask him for suggestions.

The situation at the moment is that Fred has realised he behaved badly and wrote a letter of apology to the club (for the swearing and loss of temper). He said he would also write a letter to Mary, but has yet to do so. His attendance at training has been erratic, probably because he feels awkward and embarrassed and doesn’t know how to face Mary.

There is absolutely no certainty that Fred won’t repeat his behaviour, but I believe I have put in place appropriate steps to help him and protect others.

Other types of mental illness may require other management methods. I strongly suggest you seek advice regarding your particular situation.

I would like to see coach education include some basic training in this area. What are your thoughts on the subject? I look forward to hearing your opinions.

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Comments (5)

Some excellent advice here Barb, thank you so much for posting. I had a fantastic response from my initial plea on ConnectedCoaches asking for help from members on an article I was planning to write on mental health. It spawned follow-up articles like this and lots of interest, so thank you all. The links to the two articles uploaded so far are below, while a third feature will be posted in the near future.
And it also brought a response from Matthew Ellis a few days ago, who runs his own counselling/psychotherapy practice, who wrote:
Hi Blake
You raise some really interesting points and if 1 in 4 people suffer at some point from mental health issues then why not sports people who you could argue are involved in a high stress and judgmental environment?
I originally worked in coaching and sport psychology and I now run a private counselling/psychotherapy practice within and outside of sport. Spotting mental health problems is very difficult, even for trained professionals, and often you are trying to spot subtle changes in behaviour. In terms of support, I suppose in the real world a registered counsellor would form part of the backroom staff so referral would be simple and easy if anything did crop up. I wouldn't recommend a coach to step in or offer advice but they are in a prime place to see symptoms and make a referral if required.
In term of counselling itself, the relationship could be most valuable for the participant, it’s often perceived as a negative and pathological process but ultimately is a relationship of growth and development. So often in sport athletes are treated like assets and they are at the centre of continuous interventions being applied left, right and centre, particularly in sport psychology. What counselling/psychotherapy can offer is a safe space to discuss performance, life and relationships. Simply being heard and understood can be massive for an athlete. Also, remember that those providing support in sport (staff) have a vested interest in athlete performance so for the athlete to have a therapeutic relationship without pressure to perform can have many advantages.
I did read a recent paper which I will try to root out for you and I'm currently designing a workshop about mental health in sport so I'll keep you posted with any papers I find.
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Excellent piece Barb, thank you for sharing your plan and the background to posting.

The stigma of mental health issues (1 in 4 people suffer at some point) results in the vast majority of a centre's 'medical health' student declarations being less than 'full and frank' unfortunately; a coach with experience will usually spot the, often subtle, signs but a plan such as yours should be a requirement anyway.
Blake's comprehensive comment (thank you B.) covers most of the points I would have made so no repetition.

I am a UK water sports coach who suffers from depression treated by connecting with nature (and sailing :-) ) and speaks publicly on TV, radio & National Press about reducing the stigma so I find students usually come to me and quietly discuss their issues. Similarly I battle alcoholism, again known about, with the same result, we coaches know of a students issues. However the centre where I work is a charity specialising in offering opportunities to all ages, all disabilities so we frequently have contact with students that may have challenging behaviour that is not acceptable. A smaller centre needs guidelines and at least some training, there is no need for a 'knee jerk' response of banning a student just the same understanding you would show a student with any other health issue eg time out.

Barb; thank you for posting and I hope this discussion continues, fair winds and following seas, JK

PS Professionally speaking at trainee doctor's seminars, working with public health etc and being trained by the National Autistic Society and others does give me more understanding of this issue than I would expect from most coaches! We need to share knowledge amongst us please. JK
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Update on my mentally ill athlete. He raced on the weekend and was slow. To make matters worse, the official time (which I posted in a private Facebook group) had him even slower. He made an angry phone call to me. I told him to contact the race organisers to get the time fixed. That was yesterday. Since then, I've been received texts that are progressively getting more personal and more threatening. There is an older man at the club who is like a father figure to him. I have asked that man to contact him today. I have coached this guy for almost 10 years and I have just about had enough. However, given his mental state, now is not the time to tell him. I'll have to wait until he is well, but when he's well he's lovely and I'm happy to coach him! Anyway, just a moan from the other side of the world. Stay well! :-)
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from the other side of the world. Stay well! :-)
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In terms of training and advice, I currently work with the national charity MIND and co-deliver Mental Health Awareness Training for Sports Providers with them. They also deliver a wide variety of more in depth training and advice about specific mental health conditions as there are a broad spectrum of conditions many which as a Coach you may not even be aware that a participant has through to the situation you are dealing with Barb. Their information and support webpage is a good place to start to see what they offer: http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/
Hope this is useful to someone out there!

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All of us, however experienced, can profit from Mental Health Awareness training (I certainly do) both from listening to the trainer/coach and from each other by just listening to experiences and how a challenge was overcome etc.
I'm currently on a very steep learning curve working with an adult with a Dissociative disorder (split personality) so have to remember that I'm coaching 3 different people - we're winning :-) so in my next 'being trained' session we'll be able to swap new constructive methods.

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